Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, October 30, 1998

Japanese Driver May Take Center Stage in His First Grand Prix at Home

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - In the final minutes before the start of the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday in Suzuka, when all the cars are parked on the grid in their starting order, the local-fan interest could be drawn away from the superstars ‹ Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher ‹ toward the back of the grid.

At every Grand Prix this season, the two rivals for the drivers' championship have been among the fastest qualifiers. Toranosuke Takagi of Japan has usually stood near the back of the grid, looking lonely.

But even though the 24-year old will start in his usual place Sunday, something will be distinctive about his first Formula One race in his own country: He will be driving a Tyrrell in the last race of that team's illustrious 30-year history. The team, which hasn't scored a single point this season, has been bought out and will compete under a different name in the future.

Takagi, nonetheless, has proven himself to be Japan's greatest current hope at the pinnacle of motor racing. ''I would like to show my maximum performance,'' he said of the Japanese race in a recent interview. ''And get good results in front of the fans.''

But Takagi knows that even achieving his team's stated mission of gaining a point would not necessarily win over the Japanese fans. Japan's most popular driver is still Satoru Nakajima, the country's first Formula One driver, who raced from 1987 to 1991. His best result was a fourth-place finish at the British Grand Prix in 1987. But his charismatic personality won the hearts of Japanese fans.

Only a handful of Japanese drivers have raced in Formula One. The two longest-lasting were Aguri Suzuki and Ukyo Katayama. At the Japanese Grand Prix in 1990, Suzuki was third, the best Formula One finish ever by a Japanese driver. But such was Nakajima's hold over his home fans that most of the applause at that race was for him. He finished sixth.

Takagi feels he has an advantage over his predecessors: Nakajima is his mentor, manager, and a director of the Tyrrell team, and the fans know it. ''Satoru's fans will be behind me,'' Takagi said, ''because I'm his driver and I work for him.'' But like all good protégés, Takagi said his goal was ''to beat my mentor.''

With his shoulder-length wavy hair and cool demeanor, Takagi may have the image to woo younger fans. He is the leading driver of a generation that grew up with the sport in a way that his predecessors were unable to do.

Formula One only started to become popular in Japan in the late 1980s when engines made by Honda Motor Co., the Japanese manufacturer, powered Aryton Senna to world titles in a McLaren.

Neither Nakajima nor Katayama started racing on four wheels until they were in their late teens. Many Formula One drivers from Europe and South America started go-karting as boys.

''Things have changed since Nakajima's day,'' Takagi said. ''Now the circumstances of racing in Japan are very close to what they are in Europe. So a lot of young guns are coming up at the moment. We're catching up.''

Takagi comes from a wealthy family. His father, who raced cars as a hobby, introduced him to karting when he was 12. Takagi won a Japanese kart championship in 1988. He repeated as champion in 1990, winning every race he competed in.

He then won two races in the Formula Toyota series in 1992, before moving to the Japanese Formula 3 championship in 1993. There, he was spotted by Nakajima in 1994 and placed in the Japanese F3000 championship. Takagi finished his first season there ranked second, scoring three victories, two pole positions and two fastest-laps.

Takagi became the official test driver for Tyrrell in 1997, and participated in some of the Porsche Supercup support races at Grand Prix meetings. That helped him partly overcome a handicap that he said Japanese drivers had in competing against young European drivers debuting in Formula One.

''If you are racing in the lower categories of European series,'' he said, ''you can get the experience of the race tracks that are used in Formula One, and we cannot.''

Japanese engine suppliers have sometimes insisted that teams employ a Japanese driver. Last year, Mugen-Honda would not let Alain Prost replace the driver Shinji Nakano on his team.

Harvey Postlethwaite, the Tyrrell technical director, said that of the three Japanese drivers he has worked with ‹ the others being Nakajima and Katayama ‹ Takagi has the best chance of becoming a top driver.

''Tora is one of the most talented drivers I've seen for a long while,'' he said. ''He has a natural driving talent and is a very precise, neat and tidy driver. He's been off the track a few times, but that's by-the-by. I think he could go far.''

Japanese drivers, Postlethwaite added, have to work to adapt to European culture.

Takagi, for his part, says he has still not adapted. He lives in London and takes English lessons but uses an interpreter for interviews. This weekend in Japan he has a message for all those Europeans who have asked him if he is learning English: ''When you come to Japan, please learn Japanese,'' he said. ''We are always forced to adapt. Now it's time for you to adapt.''

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